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Column Fri Apr 02 2010

City Island, The Secret of Kells, and Vincere

Hey, everyone. I wrote this a couple of weeks ago, but it's probably worth repeating. I've been traveling like a fiend the last couple of weeks (including most of this week), and as a result, I've missed a couple of big press screenings, including most notably this week's Clash of the Titans. I also somehow managed to miss the screening of the long-awaited Miley Cyrus-Nicholas Sparks collaboration The Last Song (which opened Wednesday) and the Tyler Perry sequel Why Did I Get Married Too? (actually this didn't screen for critics, but I wish it had). I'm pretty sure things will return to normal beginning next week, when I should have reviews of Date Night, the latest Herzog film My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done?, and a few other choice nuggets.

City Island

Long in search of a distributor since its Audience Award at last year's Tribeca Film Festival, City Island is a crowd pleaser that manages to avoid nearly every brand of sentimentality that most movies about colorful families subscribes to. This is a story about secrets, and the power and damage they can have and cause in a family with as much fire and spark as the Rizzos have. City Island is a small fishing community in the Bronx that almost seems like it's misplaced in many ways, which I think informs the people who live there. Often used in films as a stand in for a New England harbor town, the community is somewhat isolated and insulated from the rest of the Bronx and certainly the rest of New York City.

Frank Rizzo (Andy Garcia, who also serves as the film's producer) is a correctional officer who is secretly doing something his wife would never accept or understand. He's taking acting classes from a teacher (Alan Arkin) who encourages his students to pair up and prepare a monologue for the following class that reveals their deepest, untold secret (taking this class might qualify as Frank's). Frank pairs up with a British woman (Emily Mortimer), who turns out to be in many ways the push that he needs in more than one place in his life. Not only does she push him as an actor (including prepping him to go on his first film audition--for Scorsese film--in one of the film's most memorable and funny sequences) but she also seems to be full of sound advice when it comes to other aspects of his life. Frank biggest secret is that when he was a much younger man, he fathered a child with a woman and abandoned them both due to pressures in both their lives. He's lived with the guilt every since, and when the now-grown son, Tony (Steven Strait from 10,000 B.C.), passes through his prison, he makes the effort to bring the young man home on a sort of work-release program, without mentioning their connection. (I told you, this was a movie about secrets.)

Frank plans and carries out this little plan without checking with his wife Joyce (Julianna Margulies) or his two kids, son Vince Jr. (Ezra Miller) and college dropout-now-stripper (again, the parents don't know this), played by Garcia's real-life daughter Dominick Garcia-Lorido. The Rizzos are a family who communicate by yelling at the dinner table. Normally, it's an arrangement that works, but with so many secrets floating around, things get tense. Writer-director Raymond De Felitta wisely includes a couple such meal sequences, some of which do nothing to forward the plot but go a long way toward establishing the family dynamic quite eloquently. I particularly liked Margulies' work here, playing a character much tougher and rough around the edges than I'm used to seeing her portray. When she suspects Vince is cheating on her (he's not), she doesn't confront him. She puts the moves on his new friend Tony in an act of revenge.

What's perceptive about the screenplay is that Tony the convict is the only one not lying in this story, and his presence in the Rizzos' lives is something of a catalyst toward healing what is clearly broken in this bunch. City Island has a few extraneous and silly side plots, particularly the one involving Vince Jr.'s fetish for fat women cooking and eating. It does offer up a few laughs, but it doesn't actually add anything to the film. Even the story about the daughter being a stripper seems unnecessary. I'm sure there were other secrets she could have been keeping that would have made her seem like a more well-rounded character. But neither of those subplots take up much time in the film, nor do they even come close to ruining the good time you'll have watching it. The few scenes with Arkin are priceless, and actors around the world will love what he has to say about the pointlessness of method acting (he doesn't like the pauses). Mortimer is a breath of fresh air, and she's so good and reassuring, a small part of me believes she and Frank might have had something in another life.

As you might expect, all of the film's paths lead to the inevitable scene where all secrets are revealed and cards are left scattered on the table. It's a brutal, often uncomfortable scene that moves from heartbreaking to funny and back again. Some of the resolutions are telegraphed from miles away, and some actually took me by surprise. But I'm judging City Island as a whole and not as a collection of individual stories, and on that level, it works quite nicely. I'll admit I walked into this movie knowing next to nothing about it, and I walked out feeling pretty good about the state of movies about families. I think you'll enjoy this one. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

To read my exclusive interview with City Island star and producer Andy Garcia, go to Ain't It Cool News.

The Secret of Kells

Prior to the Oscars, I silently loathed this film for presumably knocking Miyazaki's Ponyo out of the Best Animated Feature category. Deep down inside, I was genuinely impressed with the creative forces that went into bringing this rich story and completely unique animation style to life. This Irish work from director Tomm Moore dives headfirst into Celtic legend to tell the story of a young man named Brendan, living in a monk-run society, whose enthusiasm to see outside the fortified walls he has grown up within his entire life drives him to make some reckless choices and disappoint his father (voiced by Brendan Gleeson).

The animation style might throw some people off. It is quite deliberately flat in design and in no way attempting to look realistic, but it's still quite colorful, much like classic paintings. The walls surrounds this medieval locale are meant to protect those inside from a mysterious dangerous Viking horde. At first I assumed that this unseen evil was strictly invented by those in power to keep the citizens in line, but no. They are real and they attack with a fearsome vengeance. Just before that, a holy man arrives at the fort with a book that is said will hold magical powers once completed. Brendan volunteers to search for the missing ingredients, completely against the wishes of his father.

Other mystical creatures make themselves known to Brendan, including Aisling, a forest fairy that can also turn into a wolf. Don't ask; just accept. The Secret of Kells is a movie that embraces and promotes creative thinking, which a lot of animated works tend to do. But the life-or-death stakes here seem to underscore that this isn't just about Brendan having fun; it's about saving a society. I can see younger audiences getting either a little freaked out or just plain confused by what's happening in this film, but I think fans of animation who are tired of the relentless barrage of 3-D works that are coming out every couple of weeks it seems, will appreciate this movie's attempts at doing something not exactly traditional, but certainly lo-fi.

It should come as no surprise that Kells was produced by the same people that did The Triplets of Belleville. While the two stories couldn't be less similar, there's a certain mutual admiration for trying something different and slightly mind blowing. Fans of animation have reasons to rejoice beyond the fact that How To Train Your Dragon is a total blast. The Secret of Kells tries to do something very different and succeeds triumphantly. The film will play for a week long engagement at the Gene Siskel Film Center.

Vincere

One of my favorites from last year's Chicago Film Festival (I believe the two leads won acting prizes at the festival, and helmer Marco Bellocchio took the Best Director award as well) and now making its way around the country in limited release is this hidden chapter in the life of Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. Vincere tells the story of a younger, pre-World War I Mussolini (Filippo Timi) who had a passionate affair with Ida Dalser (Giovanna Mezzogiorno), whom he married and fathered a child named Benito Albino. For a short time Mussolini even acknowledged the marriage and the son. Dalser is one of Il Duce's most passionate supporters and backed his causes and ideas. She even drains her bank account and sells all of her possessions to help him bank a publication that spells out his fascist ideas. The film does a stellar job capturing this relationship that seems to be fueled by pure, uncut passion. And since I was unaware of Dalser's story, I had assumed that this would be the tale of the dictator and the secret mistress he kept as he rose to power through the decades. Oh, no.

Vincere is about a woman scorned. Mussolini vanishes during the first World War only to emerge in a military hospital where Dalser finds him recovering and, apparently, married to a more suitable wife for the station he wishes to reach. Needless to say, Dalser's reaction to this rejection is explosive, but she is taken away, and she is locked away inside a mental hospital where brutality is apparently part of the treatment. Her cries of being Mussolini's wife seem to fit right in with the other delusions of grandeur that populate the asylum. Meanwhile, little Benito is sent to an institute/orphanage to lead a life of misery and loneliness.

I've seen Mezzogiorno do excellent work before in films like Don't Tell and Love in the Time of Cholera, but what she accomplishes in Vincere is so good it feel wrong. She underscores the fact that there is sometimes a thin line between fiery passion and pure rage (and let's throw insanity in there as well). Dalser never stops fighting for herself, her son, and the rights that should have been theirs. You want so much for her to succeed in her struggle that you forget who it is she's attempting to get close to. Ida wants to be the proper wife of a fascist dictator who aligned himself with Hitler during World War II. And yet we yearn for her to succeed. It goes without saying that the way she was treated was a disgrace, but her means of rectifying the situation seem counter productive at times. Nevertheless, Mezzogiorno's work here is worth the price of admission in a film that fully succeeds in breaking our hearts and giving us even more reasons to hate Mussolini. The film opens today at the Landmark Century Center Cinema.

 
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Architecture Tue Nov 03 2015

Paul Goldberger Describes the "Pragmatism and Poetry" of Frank Gehry's Architecture in His New Book

By Nancy Bishop

Architecture critic Paul Goldberger talks about Frank Gehry's life and work in a new book.
Read this feature »

Steve at the Movies Fri Jan 01 2016

Best Feature Films & Documentaries of 2015

By Steve Prokopy

Read this column »

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